This Too Shall Pass

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 7

The king called his philosophers, wise-men, counselors, and fools to him.

"Create for me a ring such that when I am happy, and I look at the ring, I will become sad and when I am sad, I will look upon the ring and be happy."

The philosophers, wise-men, counselors, and fools went away for six months. When they returned, they gathered before the king and presented him with a simple, silver ring adorned only with a short phrase engraved in simple characters.

The king held the ring up to his eyes, the better to read the inscription. He turned the ring slowly in his hands so that the characters appeared one by one. He considered each in turn until, at long last, he had read the full length of the ring.

He nodded once, accepting the words of his philosophers, wise-men, counselors, and fools: "This, too, shall pass."


I love that story; some time ago, a student asked me to explain the phrase "this, too, shall pass," after I had used it in a lesson. As is so often the case (and one of the reasons I do this newsletter) is that I had no idea where I had first heard the phrase, I just liked the sound of it.

Over the years, I put this version together from different accounts and stories I've read over the years, taking a piece here and a piece there to make it into something I could use in class. For the right student, it's a good lesson. For the right student.

The story itself resides in the grey zone between folklore, fable, and legend. Google Books has a couple of interesting takes on it:

From The Cottager's monthly visitor, Volume 26 (1846)

a native prince…sent his benefactor…a magnificent ring. It was of solid gold, set with a single diamond; and on the inner surface were inscribed these words in the Persian character: “This too shall pass away.”

“When the sun of prosperity shines upon you, when your heart is elated and happy, and the praises of many friends are in your ears, then think of your ring, remembering the motto, ‘This too shall pass away.’ Again, if your sunshine be clouded, should misfortunes cross your path, or the friends who have caressed grow cold and desert you like falling leaves, then look at your ring, remember the motto, ‘This too shall pass away.’”

And from A memoir of the late Rev. William Croswell, D.D.: rector of the Church of the advent, Boston (1839)

“Your lordship will probably recollect…a sultan who consulted Solomon on the proper inscription for a signet ring, requiring that the maxim which it conveyed should be at once proper for moderating the presumption of prosperity, and tempering the pressure of adversity. The apothegm supplied by the Jewish sage was…’This also shall pass away.’”

Each take is a little different, but the end result is the same - here we have a fable, and its key adage, that tells us to stay even-keeled and moderate in both good and bad times, which is worth remembering.

In recent years, meditating has gone from fringe, new-wave, neo-hippie bullshit to mainstream, reputable therapeutic advice. I'm not particularly good at remembering to meditate, but I think this phrase - this, too, shall pass - is a pretty good mantra for the odd occasion when I do. And, should I ever forget, there are only several thousand rings, bracelets, wall-hangings, and rubber stamps available to remind me.

Oh, and in case you're in need of a lesson plan or just drunken bar-talk, here are some discussion questions:

  1. Is this good advice? Why or why not?

  2. Why would the king ask for something to make him sad when he is happy?

  3. Why are fools included in the list of the king's advisors?

Remember, all answers must be supported with clear reasoning and, hopefully, free snacks at the bar. Good luck.

Wikipedia, citing Ralph Keyes’ The quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When, traces the phrase and its origin story to Persian poetry and thence to Jewish folklore and from there to English fables:

The fable retold by Fitzgerald can be traced to the first half of the 19th century, appearing in American papers by at least as early as 1839. It usually involved a nameless "Eastern monarch". Its origin has been traced to the works of Persian Sufi poets, such as Sanai and Attar of Nishapur. Attar records the fable of a powerful king who asks assembled wise men to create a ring that will make him happy when he is sad. After deliberation the sages hand him a simple ring with the words "This too will pass" etched on it, which has the desired effect to make him happy when he is sad. It also, however, became a curse for whenever he is happy.

Notable Events of the Year 1839

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OK Go has made a name for themselves as an art band and for good reason - the videos they create for their songs are arguably more popular and creative than the songs they write.

In particular, their video for their song "This Too Shall Pass" sees the band participating in an elaborate Rube Goldberg Machine that finishes with all four members of the band being covered in paint. Here is that video and six other examples of incredible RGMs from the YouTube generation:

Next Time: So it goes. That’s it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.